‘I Was Being Baptized Into Acting’: An Interview With Obies Host John Leguizamo


Twenty-seven years after winning an Obie award for performing in his one-man show Mambo Mouth, John Leguizamo is hosting the 2018 edition of the annual ceremony on Monday night, where presenters are set to include Andrew Garfield, Laura Benanti, Matthew Broderick, Emilio Sosa, David Henry Hwang, Pixie Aventura, and the Village Voice’s own Michael Feingold. Currently a Tony Award contender for Latin History for Morons, which transferred to Broadway after a successful run last season at the Public Theater, Leguizamo traces his own love of theater to the Off-Broadway productions he caught while growing up in Jackson Heights.

Chatting by phone recently with the Voice, the multitasking actor and writer acknowledged this debt, and spoke a bit about what he has on tap for awards night and beyond.

Do you remember when you first became aware of the Obie awards, or Off- and Off-Off-Broadway generally?

I’ve always been a huge fan of Off-Broadway, of the kind of acting and storytelling that can happen there. The most important shows of my life, I saw there. I remember seeing Sam Shepard’s True West with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise at the Cherry Lane Theatre, and seeing Al Pacino in American Buffalo at Circle in the Square [Downtown]. That’s how old I am. I don’t know how my mom got those tickets, but they were in the front row, and Pacino spit on me. I was about fifteen, and I felt like I was being baptized into acting.

Then you won an Obie yourself.

I got my first Obie for Mambo Mouth. I think Spalding Gray gave me my award. It was 1991, and I remember being flabbergasted that here was one of my idols, giving me an award. I couldn’t believe this was happening.

I’m guessing one-man shows in particular were a source of inspiration for you. Any other favorites?

Eric Bogosian, he’ll always be the guy who brought that great anger to his shows. And David Cale, he did beautiful work. All these people inspired me so that I could develop my own version of that sort of autobiographical work.

And Latin History for Morons, your most recent show — which is now up for a Tony Award — premiered Off-Broadway, at the Public Theater.

You need to experiment, to be able to fail to get great work, and Off-Broadway allows you to do that. You have all these incredible, trusting people, like [Public artistic director] Oskar Eustis and [associate artistic director] Mandy Hackett, who make you feel safe.

Do you still see a lot of stuff, when you’re not performing yourself?

Oh, yeah. I guess now Off-Broadway is different than it was. The New Group, I go see stuff there. Playwrights Horizons, Signature Theatre. The Public, of course — I just saw Miss You Like Hell. Very touching, very powerful, about immigration and being an illegal immigrant in America.

You discuss your children in Latin History. Have you brought them to the theater with you a lot?

Yeah, particularly my daughter. She’s eighteen now, and she has the same love of theater and storytelling and playwriting as I do. When I was seventeen I was a play-reading addict, and my daughter is like that too. She’s seen Hamilton four times, and sees shows on and Off-Broadway all the time. She has a real passion for it. She’s going to study acting.

Can you say where?

At Northwestern. I’m so proud of her.

So what are your plans for Monday night?

I’m hoping to have fun, to celebrate Off-Broadway theater, share my love for it and my own journey. And take a jibe at Broadway a little bit — why not? And take the piss out of myself a little bit too. Hopefully I’ll make people laugh. It’s an enormous space, a cavernous space, which is hard, because that echo chamber is a laugh-killer. And when you have people sitting at tables, it’s not always conducive to laughter. But I’ve been to these events, and I know that even if I’m not laughing outwardly, I’m still enjoying it, you know? I’m figuring that if I’m having a good time, it means someone else is.

Should we expect any political jokes?

A little bit. You can’t not talk about the elephant in the room. But I don’t want to harp on it and ruin the evening for everyone. You want to celebrate the good things that are happening in this country, and the beauty of Off-Broadway theater and the powerful work they do.

You obviously have a lot of experience holding a stage on your own, but is there a particular pressure or energy when you host an event like this?

Well, you’re the host of the party, so if the party isn’t going well, you’ll get blamed for it. But I only have about eight minutes at the top. I’ll talk about my experiences Off-Broadway, my foibles. You want to be edgy enough, to strike the right balance.

Any favorites in this arena, awards-show hosts?

I like Martin Short a lot. I saw George Lopez once and really enjoyed it. He was really acerbic, very dark, and I’d never seen that side of him. I had a blast — I was howling.

How about Lea DeLaria, who hosted the last three Obie awards presentations?

I just saw her recently, at an event — it was opening night of Miss You Like Hell, at the Public Theater. She goes, “Oh, you’re taking my gig!” And I said, “I’ll gladly give it back to you.” She’s funny, man. I always love her work.

Are you working with any co-writers?

Yes, [journalist and author] Rob Tannenbaum is helping me out, because this is not my métier. Rob’s the bomb. He’s a funny dude.

And can you tell us what you’ll be wearing?

A suit and tie — but with the tie not really knotted all the way to the top. Like, fake-casual.

Any other projects you’re working on that you’d like to share with us?

I’m about to shoot this really great movie with Helen Hunt and Tye Sheridan, called Night Clerk. And oh, I have a movie coming out called Nancy, with the great actress Andrea Riseborough; it’s like a psychological thriller. And my graphic novel Ghetto Klown was nominated for an Eisner Award, which is like the Oscars for graphic novels.

You’ll return to the stage, of course.

There’s definitely something special about theater; when you see someone live, it becomes a part of you. I still remember the first time I saw A Chorus Line, and there was a Latin person in the show. I felt like the baton was being passed to me.

Would you consider doing a musical?

Not being in one, but I’m actually working on one, writing one. I’m not going to tell you what it is, but we’re workshopping it at the Public. They created space for me to work on it privately.

That’s exciting. Any other details you can give us about Monday — maybe just one bit you’re thinking of working in?

I’m hoping to do a little spoof of Cardi B, but I don’t know if it’ll make it, if it’s good enough. We’ll see on Monday.